IOWA CITY - The death sentences given to notorious Iowa methamphetamine kingpin Dustin Honken were appropriate punishment for the 1993 slayings of two children and won't be overturned, a federal judge ruled Friday.
Recounting the details of one of the most heinous crime sprees in Iowa history, U.S. District Judge Linda Reade wrote that Honken received a fair trial in 2004 and effective legal counsel at every step of the process. She said she saw no reason "to disturb the jury's determination that death is the appropriate punishment in this case."
"In sum, the convictions and sentences of death withstand scrutiny even in light of the heightened standards that are applied in capital cases," wrote Reade, chief judge of the Cedar Rapids-based Northern District of Iowa.
Honken, 45, is on death row at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind.
Honken was running a sophisticated methamphetamine operation when he committed the execution-style slayings of two associates; one of their girlfriends; and her daughters, ages 10 and 6. A jury convicted him in all five slayings, giving him two death sentences for the girls' murders and life in prison for the adults' deaths.
Honken's accomplice, Angela Johnson, was convicted in a separate trial and sentenced to death, becoming the first woman on federal death row in decades. A judge overturned her death sentences last year, and she is awaiting a new trial to determine whether she'll remain on death row or be given life in prison.
Prosecutors say Honken was a likable chemistry whiz who turned into an evil mastermind, building elaborate meth labs in Arizona and then in Iowa in the early 1990s.
They say that he and Johnson, who was his girlfriend at the time, killed two dealers who had distributed their meth after they became witnesses in a federal investigation that led to Honken's indictment on drug charges.
Days before Honken was expected to plead guilty, Honken and Johnson forced one of the men to make a videotaped statement exonerating Honken, then took him, his girlfriend and the girls to a field and shot each in the back of the head. Months later, Johnson lured a second dealer, who was her former boyfriend, to a secluded location where Honken shot him several times and beat him with a baseball bat.
The victims' bodies were not found until 2000, when Johnson drew a map for a jailhouse informant that led authorities to their shallow graves near Mason City.
Honken filed the appeal in 2010, raising dozens of objections in arguing that his sentences should be overturned. Among other issues, Honken claimed that jurors should have heard more about his troubled youth, his alleged mental health problems and drug abuse in considering whether to give him the death penalty.
Reade rejected those claims, saying there was "irrefutable proof" of his guilt and the facts of the case supported the punishment.
The evidence showed Honken "slaughtered two little girls who were particularly vulnerable due to their young age, presented a danger in the future to the lives and safety of other persons, obstructed justice by preventing the victims from providing testimony or information to law enforcement, killed more than one person in a single criminal episode and devastated the families of the victims," she wrote.
Reade found merit in one of Honken's arguments: that he should not have been convicted of five capital counts each of two different murder charges because they were redundant. She threw out five counts of conspiracy to commit murder while engaging in the manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine. The effect of that ruling is largely symbolic.